Newark Star-Ledger —July 10, 2005

British opera provokes thought, not emotion -
10 July 2005
The Star-Ledger
(c) 2005 The Star-Ledger. All rights reserved.

In its overall mission to present cutting-edge performing art, Lincoln Center Festival has been rather consistent in showcasing experimental new operas that likely could not find a home at a standard American opera house. British composer Brian Ferneyhough's "Shadowtime," which will have its U.S. premiere at the festival, is a perfect example.

"Shadowtime" is not opera in the sense of linear narrative with through-written melody. A so-called "thought opera" based on the life of 20th century philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), it contains seven discrete sections, which took Ferneyhough, 62, five years to write. After a grueling trek across the Pyrenees to escape the Nazis, Benjamin was told by Spanish authorities he would be deported back to France, and opted instead to kill himself. The opera imagines a string of associative and often highly mathematical conjectures made by Benjamin on the brink of his 1940 suicide.

"What belongs inalienably to opera?" Ferneyhough responds rhetorically when asked to describe the work. "Plot? Arias? Passion? Prima donnas? It is really rather like learning about sonata form in theory class: You learn the 'form' as an abstract distillate, then find out practically no work ever written conforms entirely to that recipe! Writing operas rewrites what opera is."

That last line encapsulates the libretto for "Shadowtime" by American poet Charles Bernstein, a proponent of "language poetry" that, a la Gertrude Stein, uses words the way a bricklayer uses bricks: stacked in patterns that sometimes only make sense for their symmetry, not their content.

"I'm a lent barn Jew, a mint bran jewel, a barn Jew melt in," reads one line from the opera in a section composed entirely of anagrams of Walter Benjamin's name.

"We have Benjamin speak in the way he wrote as a philosopher," says Bernstein, who points out that contemporary American opera is dominated by novel-based stories by Arthur Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald and their ilk. "This is more like a symphonic work that incorporates language as part of musical experience. We wanted to do something more radical, more identifiable, to create a text poetic rather than a narrative, one that responded in style and approach to the music."

The work contains humor, as did Benjamin's writings, which explored Marxism and combined Jewish mysticism with historical materialism. In "Shadowtime," Benjamin's passage to the underworld is through a lounge pianist in a Las Vegas nightclub, for instance; Karl Marx and Groucho Marx are the two heads of an underworld beast.

Ferneyhough's two-hour score, though, has been called "dense" and an act of "blazing constructivism" by critics at the Berlin and Paris premieres. Some criticized performances for their lack of sensuality, though that's hardly the goal the collaborators set for themselves.

"Neither of us is interested in a dry, intellectual abstract experience," says Bernstein.

Precise in its craftsmanship and harmonic acuity, Ferneyhough's score, not unlike those of the American Charles Wuorinen, is layered and thick and seems allergic to through-written melody, even for vocal parts - unless that melodic idea can be fractured and reconnected to itself in an interesting way.

Ferneyhough says that's because he, too, was contemplating Benjamin's associative style, where ideas begat ideas, almost like a skipping stone.

"Benjamin was a rather disorderly figure," says Ferneyhough, who has lived in California for more than a decade and teaches at Stanford University. Benjamin, Ferneyhough believes, was an iconic intellectual who ran into the dark wall of materialism and the political realignment of pre-World War II Europe. "His life and thought seem completely conjoined, thus his writings bring alive for us the inner convulsions of a period characterized by the most painful imaginable extremes of refinement and barbarism."

"Shadowtime" will be presented in its Munich production, performed by the Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam and Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, conducted by Jurjen Hempel and directed by Frederic Fisbach.

As for the audience's experience? Both composer and librettist agree that they aren't looking for a sympathetic listener as much as an engaged and thinking one.

"I think what we hope for in our audience is a recognition that 'Shadowtime's' authors believe passionately in the sensually expressive power of ideas, no matter how currently embarrassing a concept that might be," says Ferneyhough.

1. Brian Ferneyhough and Charles Bernstein's "Shadowtime" is based on the work and life of Walter Benjamin.